Peyote: Everything You Want to Know

Your definitive guide to peyote — the mescaline-containing cactus used ritually by indigenous-American cultures since prehistory.

Overview: Peyote is a spineless cactus known for its psychedelic compound mescaline. Indigenous cultures revere peyote for its spiritual and healing qualities. Mescaline was isolated and synthesized by chemists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gaining recognition through Aldous Huxley's writings. The Controlled Substances Act restricted personal use and research on mescaline, except for religious practices. Peyote has been used in indigenous American spirituality for thousands of years, despite Spanish colonization and bans. The Native American Church formed to protect their religious rights. Peyote ceremonies are structured, involving peyote consumption, singing, and prayers. Scientific research on peyote's therapeutic potential is limited. The plant faces extinction due to habitat destruction and overharvesting. Conservation efforts are crucial to preserve peyote and protect indigenous cultural practices.

Peyote: A Sacred Cactus with Medicinal and Visionary Qualities

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a species of green, globular-shaped, spineless cactus known for containing the classic psychedelic compound mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine). It grows close to the ground in the deserts of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. 

Ethnobotanical studies have documented over 100 cacti used by indigenous peoples, with one particular cactus, peyote, standing out for its medicinal and visionary qualities.

For centuries, various Mesoamerican cultures such as the Huichol, Cora, Tepehuanes, Tonkawa, Mescalero, and Tarahumara have revered peyote as sacred, incorporating it into spiritual and healing ceremonies. Peyote holds a special place in these cultures. 

“Peyote is everything, it is the crossing of the souls; it is everything that is. Without peyote, nothing would exist.” - Jose Bautista Huichol, shaman and peyotero.

indigenous peyote

Mescaline: The Key to Peyote's Psychedelic Experience

The peyote cactus features a disc-shaped "button" at its top, traditionally used for consumption. To access the psychoactive compounds within, the buttons are sliced, dried, and either chewed or brewed into tea.

Peyote contains various psychoactive alkaloids, with mescaline being the primary substance responsible for its psychedelic effects. In 1897, German chemist Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline from the peyote cactus and demonstrated its role in producing psychedelic effects through animal and self-experiments.

In 1919, Austrian chemist Ernst Späth synthesized mescaline for the first time. This achievement expanded scientific knowledge and opened up possibilities for further research and applications in the field of organic chemistry, particularly regarding natural substances.

Mescaline gained wider recognition through British author Aldous Huxley's publication, "Doors of Perception," which included his detailed trip report spanning 63 pages. This made mescaline the pioneering psychedelic to captivate the Western world.

Personal experimentation and research involving mescaline and peyote faced restrictions in 1970 with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act. However, a notable exception was made for legitimate religious practices by indigenous Americans.

The potency of each peyote plant varies based on factors such as age, location, and the season of harvesting, posing challenges in accurately determining doses.

Standard peyote doses are as follows:

  • Light dose: 50-100g fresh or 10-20g dry (three to six buttons)
  • Moderate dose: 150g fresh or 30g dry (six to twelve buttons)
  • Strong dose: 200g fresh or 40g dry (eight to sixteen buttons)
  • Heavy dose: > 200g fresh or 40g dry 

Ancient Roots: Peyote as a Sacred Sacrament in Indigenous American Spirituality

Peyote has been a sacrament in the spiritual life of indigenous Americans since ancient times.

Recent radiocarbon analysis of potent peyote material recovered from the Shumla Caves, a series of nine caves on the Rio Grande in Val Verde County, Texas, uncovered three specimens dating back more than 5700 years. Researchers demonstrated that the peyote specimens fall into the Eagle Nest subperiod of the Middle Archaic Period.

Interestingly, the specimens lack the anatomy of a peyote cactus. Instead, what remains is an assemblage of ground peyote mixed with other plant materials flattened into a hemisphere shape, vaguely resembling peyote buttons.  

peyote shulma caves

Suppression and Survival: The Resilience of Peyote Rituals in the Face of Spanish Conquest

The use of peyote in religious rituals has faced significant controversy and suppression since the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. When the Spanish arrived, they mistreated indigenous peoples, viewing their practices as sinful. Peyote, considered a satanic ritual, suffered from derogatory treatment due to this mindset.

In 1620, the Spanish Inquisition even banned peyote for non-indigenous people, attempting to eradicate its use entirely from colonial society. The Spanish believed that peyote consumption was dangerous and sinful because it held a unique significance for indigenous communities that differed from their relationship with other plants.

By 1720, the ritual use of peyote among indigenous populations was completely prohibited. However, the conquistadors' efforts had unintended consequences. Rather than eradicating peyote, the ban led to increased use among both indigenous and non-indigenous populations who were determined to hold onto their sacred traditions. These customs had been passed down for generations and were deeply ingrained in their cultures.

In Mexico, some indigenous communities were forced to practice their religious ceremonies secretly in remote locations, away from prying eyes. They bravely defended their right to use peyote and have continued their sacramental practices to this day, despite the challenges they faced.

The journey of peyote and its cultural significance is a testament to the resilience and determination of indigenous communities in preserving their traditions.

From Mexico to North America: The Spread and Formation of the Native American Church

In the late 1800s, the ritual use of peyote expanded beyond Mexico. By the end of 1885, ceremonies were being held in various parts of the United States, leading to widespread consumption of peyote as part of a pan-Indian religion.

Peyotists in the United States fought for their religious freedom and eventually obtained a religious exemption to consume the cactus. In 1918, several groups united to form the Native American Church (NAC). It was a challenging and lengthy process, as the NAC had to navigate numerous legal battles to protect their right to practice their religion.

Interestingly, peyotists found an unlikely ally in Christian morality, which inadvertently helped in the formation and spread of the pan-Indian religion. This resistance strategy aided the growth of the ritual use of peyote.

The Canadian branch of the NAC was established in 1954, expanding the reach of the religious movement. In 1996, rights were granted to members of the NAC serving in the US military to use peyote for religious purposes when they were off duty.

Today, the NAC boasts a membership of over a quarter of a million individuals, making it the largest pan-Indian religion in North America.

Connecting with the Sacred: Exploring the Essence of Peyote Ceremonies

NAC ceremonies are deeply rooted in the belief in overall well-being and living in harmony with nature. These ceremonies often focus on healing and establishing a connection with the spiritual realm. The consumption of peyote takes place in a structured religious setting, usually at someone's home, with the guidance of an authorized healer.

The formal part of the ceremony usually starts at sunset and continues until sunrise. Participants sit in a circle around a central altar-fireplace, and at a certain point in the ceremony, peyote is passed around the circle. Throughout the night, there is singing of religious songs and recitation of prayers led by each person, accompanied by the rhythmic beats of drums and rattles made from gourds.

The ceremonies follow a specific order and rituals to help maintain a sense of stability and counteract any potential distortions in perception. Objects like drums, rattles, ceremonial tobacco, and other important items are passed in a particular manner, and people move in only one direction around the hogan or tepee.

Typically, ceremonies conclude with the symbolic consumption of food and water, representing a sacred conclusion to the ritual.

For the Huichol tribe of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico, peyote rituals remain a vital aspect of their lives. Each year, they embark on a pilgrimage of approximately 200 miles from the western Sierra Madre to Wirikuta, a revered location where peyote grows abundantly.

During their journey, the experienced shaman or "mara'akame" hunts for peyote as if it were a deer, symbolizing the supernatural guardian of the deer. The Huichol's annual ritual is believed to closely resemble ancient Mexican ceremonies practiced before the arrival of European colonizers.

Bridging Science and Tradition: Understanding Peyote's Therapeutic Potential

Since peyote has psychedelic properties, primarily due to its main active compound called mescaline, users often have uplifting experiences characterized by euphoria, vivid imagery, and profound psychological insights. These effects are similar to those induced by other well-known psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin.

NAC ceremonies serve various healing purposes, and there are reports suggesting that the ritual use of peyote in a controlled religious setting may be effective in addressing alcohol abuse among indigenous Americans. The carefully structured environment and supportive elements of NAC ceremonies create a holistic treatment approach that takes into account the entire individual.

However, it's important to note that there haven't been comprehensive scientific studies specifically examining the effects of peyote on addiction disorders.

Some studies exploring the relationship between psychedelics and mental health have found associations between mescaline use and lower rates of serious psychological distress. Furthermore, the use of mescaline and peyote has been linked to lower rates of psychiatric medication prescription, symptoms of agoraphobia, and psychotic symptoms.

Naturalistic use of mescaline, which is the use of mescaline in a non-clinical or real-world setting, has been linked to reported improvements in mental health. These include: 

  • Improvements in depression and anxiety 
  • Improvements in PTSD symptoms 
  • Improvements in drug use disorders
  • Decreased alcohol misuse
  • Enhanced sense of personal well-being 
  • Enhanced sense of life purpose and meaning 
  • Improved attitudes about life and self
  • Positive behavioral changes

Despite the potential therapeutic benefits reported, it is essential to emphasize the need for further scientific research on peyote and its effects. While there have been some studies suggesting that may be associated with improvements in mental health, controlled studies specifically investigating the therapeutic potential of peyote for mental health conditions are lacking.

It's worth noting that the traditional use of peyote extends beyond ritual practices. For example, the Tarahumara people reportedly consume peyote to enhance their endurance in long-distance running. Moreover, the liquid extract of the cactus, containing the antibiotic alkaloid peyocactin, is utilized topically by the Tarahumara for treating skin lesions, snakebites, and scorpion stings.

Peyote: A Precious Tradition Threatened by Extinction

Throughout the past century, peyote has been at the center of debates and legal disputes concerning religious freedom and indigenous rights. Despite attempts to restrict its ritual use, dedicated groups have fought to preserve the personal right to consume peyote, ensuring its continued usage.

Even today, peyote remains highly sought-after for religious, spiritual, and medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, the destruction of its natural habitat has significantly impacted its populations, raising concerns for its future.

Due to a variety of factors including overharvesting, agricultural expansion, peyote tourism, urbanization, hazardous waste disposal, oil exploration, wind farms, and narcotrafficking, the peyote cactus is now facing the tragic risk of extinction. This slow-growing plant has seen a significant decline in its population, with some areas experiencing up to a 40% reduction in the number of cacti due to overharvesting.

Additionally, the extraction of groundwater for agriculture is depleting water sources in regions where peyote naturally grows, such as Valle de Arista in San Luis Potosí.

Furthermore, the increasing number of members in the NAC, who consume peyote as part of their religious practices, has added to the demand for this endangered plant. Concerned experts, including researcher Pedro Nájera of Conabio (the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity), have warned that if actions are not taken, peyote could become extinct within the next 10 years.

However, collaborative efforts involving researchers, conservationists, lawyers, and indigenous communities can play a vital role in protecting peyote. Community-based programs focusing on restoration and conservation can help combat the looting of peyote and restore its populations. Monitoring, education, and reforestation projects can be implemented to raise awareness and preserve this sacred plant. Cultivation initiatives can also contribute to the preservation of peyote and provide controlled access to it in a shamanistic context.

Preserving peyote is crucial for indigenous communities for whom its use is deeply intertwined with their cultural identity. Safeguarding this sacred sacrament is of utmost importance to them. Therefore, urgent action is needed to ensure the survival of peyote and protect its invaluable teachings for future generations.

Girl with Plant
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
(We don't like spam either)

Test Answer 222


Test Answer

Dr. Ana Holmes, Physican, Philadelphia, US

Test Answer 2


Test Answer 3


Test Answer 2


Test Answer

Dr. Ana Holmes, Physican, Philadelphia, US

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.